5 Questions with Rep. Randy Forbes on Subs and Nukes

June 22, 2015

This is the latest installment of our 5 Questions series, in which we feature an expert, practitioner, or leader answering — you guessed it — five questions on a topic of current relevance in the world of defense, security, and foreign policy. Well, four of the questions are topical.  The fifth is about booze. We are War on the Rocks, after all.

We’re joined this week by Congressman J. Randy Forbes (R-VA), the Chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.

1. Last week, the House passed an amendment that you introduced to restore funding authorities for the National Sea-Based Deterrent Fund (NSBDF). You want this to be a Department of Defense-wide fund instead of just a Navy fund, which I imagine some people in the other services are not thrilled about since this fund has been described as a piggy bank for the ballistic missile submarine replacement program (SSBN-X). Why is this fund important? Why should it be DoD-wide? Is the U.S. government identifying resources to apply to this fund?

70% of the U.S. nuclear deterrent is going to be carried by our next-generation ballistic missile submarines. This is not a Navy mission — it is a national, strategic mission that happens to be carried out by the U.S. Navy. That’s why leaders in both parties and both chambers, including my Ranking Member Joe Courtney, got together last year to create the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund (NSBDF) in the National Defense Authorization Act. Last week, the House voted 321 to 111 in favor of our amendment to bring the Defense Appropriations into alignment with the NDAA.

Almost everyone agrees that the Ohio Replacement Program is critically needed to sustain our nuclear deterrent. But on its current trajectory, the cost of that program threatens to consume roughly 30% of the entire shipbuilding budget in the decades to come, placing an unacceptable strain on the already stretched shipbuilding account. NSBDF addresses this problem in three ways.  First, by separating ORP funding into a special account, the NSBDF makes clear what funds are available for building our nuclear missile submarines and what funds are available for conventional shipbuilding, giving everyone greater visibility into the status of these programs and where their defense dollars are going. Second, the NSBDF’s rules authorize the Navy to utilize a number of contracting agreements which would essentially enable it to buy parts in bulk, rather than buying one submarine at a time.  Given the scale of the ORP, this could result in huge efficiencies and savings. Finally, NSBDF rules’ authorize DoD to transfer excess, unobligated funds into the NSBDF — not so that the Navy can rob other programs, but so that the fund can function like a piggy bank, and DoD can start saving up its spare change for those years in the 2020s and 2030s when the ORP’s multi-billion procurement bills start coming due. That authority was just granted by our Defense Appropriations amendment last week, so I am hopeful that we will see DoD start depositing funds in the year ahead.

2. Is the Navy over-investing in submarines? A recent article by James Holmes in The National Interestsuggested that underwater detection is more and more possible, negating our competitive advantages? Are we betting the survivability of the nuclear deterrent on an increasingly outmoded assumption?

I have tremendous respect for Professor Holmes, particularly his work on China’s navy and the security dynamics in the Indo-Pacific. But on this subject, I respectfully disagree. The U.S. advantage in the undersea domain, which did so much to secure victory in the Pacific in World War II and provide strategic stability during the Cold War, will remain an essential American competitive advantage for years to come.

That is not to say that important work does not need to be done to sustain that advantage. I have been a strong proponent of investment in cutting-edge undersea technologies like UUVs and submarine-launched UAVs and programs like the Virginia Payload Module that will sustain our undersea payload capacity. I see technologies on the horizon that, with sufficient investment, will provide our submarine forces with entirely new capabilities while expanding existing competencies. The Silent Service has always been at the forefront of naval innovation and technological experimentation, and Congress will continue to foster and encourage that proud tradition.

As the United States continues to redefine its role in the Indo-Pacific’s new security environment, the submarine will be an integral part of our presence there. From the nuclear stability provided by the Ohio Replacement SSBN to the Virginia-class’s unparalleled strike capabilities, American undersea dominance will remain essential to global stability.

3. How healthy is the U.S. submarine industrial base? The U.S. defense industry has not made a boomer in a long time, and we certainly don’t want to undercut the health of the Virginia (fast attack) production line. Can we build both at the same time? Do we have the capacity and the people to do both?

The health of the industrial base is something that gets too often ignored in Washington. Defense is not a faucet, to be turned on and off at will. We saw during the debate over sequestration the assumption that drastic cuts could be made to our military, only to be reversed later with minimal consequence. That’s just not how defense works. The skilled workforce required to sustain complicated enterprises like shipbuilding will be unlikely to remain in an unstable industry, and the next generation of skilled workers could be dissuaded from committing their careers to defense. But it is important to note that the industrial base isn’t just the shipyards that build and repair our submarines — it is also the suppliers of specialized parts, and they are often smaller and particularly susceptible to demand shocks.

The men and women of the submarine industrial base are the best in the world. The Virginia-class submarine is the product of one of the most successful acquisition programs of our generation, partly due to great teamwork between the Navy, industry, and Congress to sustain multi-year procurements that reduce costs while providing stability for the workforce. I am confident that our industrial base, if provided with continued stability, will be able to modernize our sea-based nuclear deterrent while also meeting sustained demand for attack submarines, particularly in the Western Pacific.

4. Congress seems to have trouble with unloading legacy systems (ICBMs, manned bombers) in an age of austerity. Is there a growing recognition on the Hill that the ballistic missile submarine replacement program is a national program worthy of priority resourcing?

The votes on the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund show how seriously Congress is taking the next-generation SSBN. 90% of the House has supported the Fund in different votes, and I am optimistic about the Senate.

Asking the right questions about the future of our military is a role Congress can, and must, play. The legislative branch has pushed military innovation and modernization since the founding of the Republic, and we will continue to do so in the 21st century. Whether it’s emerging undersea technologies or unmanned carrier aircraft or land-based anti-ship missiles, Congress has a responsibility to ask hard questions about where the military is and where it should be going.

5. If you could lead a toast in a room full of U.S. submarine commanders, what would you say and what would you be drinking?

I actually had the great privilege to do this as the keynote speaker at this year’s Submarine Birthday Ball in Washington, DC.  The theme of my speech was the legacy of Admiral Rickover and the need for us all to have the same vision and clarity of purpose that he had in mitigating the challenges we face today. I talked at length about platforms and payloads and the need for technological innovation, but as Admiral Rickover said: “Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved.” The men and women of the Silent Service have always been the tip of the spear. They spend months at a time below the waves, and they risk their lives in ways we will never fully know or understand. Policymakers owe them the resources they need to succeed, and all Americans owe them — and their families — a debt of gratitude. I am not a drinker, but I would certainly raise a glass to our undersea warriors.

 

Ryan Evans is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.

 

Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery